Who could have expected South Africa to be fighting for bare survival when the battle for semifinals began. This despite their loss at the group stage to Australia and lucky survival against Malinga's magic when chasing a modest score.
But the unexpected loss to Bangladesh changed everything and going into their final super-eight match against England at Barbados, they face the uncomfortable prospect of being ejected out of the semifinal. If they lose on Tuesday, England will be through barring some heavy defeat against the West Indies. Theoretically, that will even leave a chance for the West Indies to sneak in, but only theoretically because the Net Run-Rate now is going to be a mountain to climb for the hosts.
The history of England-South Africa encounters points towards South Africa as the likely winner. When Jacques Kallis says that the onus now is on South Africa ''and we are capable of doing it,'' probably he has the past history, than the current form of South African batsmen in mind.
The Era of Complete South Africa Dominance
Since 1992 World Cup, South Africa's first big tournament after coming into the international fold, the two sides have played each other 34 times with England winning just eleven of these. This low win percentage of 32.25 for England becomes even more lopsided if we take the 1995-96 ODI series in South Africa as the starting point between the two sides, a series in which South Africa had thrashed England 6-1. With this starting point, the two sides have played 30 ties with South Africa winning 21 and England just 7 (There was one tie and one no result). With this new cut-off point, England's win percentage further comes down to 23.3.
So on past record, the South Africans should start as favourites, though in this World Cup, their form still leaves much to be desired. However, England too will be realistic enough to realize that their two wins so far have come only against Bangladesh and Ireland and they need much more to be competitive against an out of form, but talented South African outfit. Especially as World Cups bring the best out of the South Africans against England.
1992 World Cup
The first ever battlefield between the Proteas and the England side post-apartheid saw a raw but methodical South Africans almost beating England twice. A group match at Melbourne saw a terrific 151 run partnership between Hudson and Skipper Wessels, though the due was trifle slow and newcomers to ODIs managed to post a final score of only 236.
Thereafter, some deadly bowling from Pacemen McMillan and Snell had reduced England to 166 for five at one stage before a fine half-century partnership between Chris Lewis and Neil Fairbrother salvaged the situation for England in a match interrupted by rain.
If the three-wicket loss was not narrow enough, the semifinal at Sydney between the two sides promised to be one of the most thrilling in the World Cup history before rain robbed South Africa of a possible victory charge.
Instead of 22 from 13 balls, the South Africans were compelled to make an impossible 22 off just one ball. However, by reaching semifinal in their first ever tournament, they had acquitted themselves quite well.
Since that fateful Sydney encounter, the two sides have met twice in World Cups with South African convincingly winning on both the occasions. More importantly, both the times the Proteas were defending very low scores.
At Rawalpindi in 1996, South Africa, opting to bat first could only manage 230, but the first over dismissal of skipper Artherton by Pollock started a procession, which saw England losing their half the side for just 62 on board. All escape routes were closed as they folded up for 152. If the loss by 78 runs at Rawalpindi was huge, the loss at Oval four years later was even bigger and bitter.
In that critical group match, Herschelles Gibbs and Gary Kirsten's century partnership gave South Africa a solid foundation against the hosts, but again it was too slow. Their 111 runs consumed half the innings' overs! Thanks to a procession of wickets, South Africa's final tally of 225 was again much below expectations. However, some unplayable bowling by their pacemen, with Donald picking four wickets for just 17 runs, saw England folding up for a meager 103 to lose by 122 runs.
As the two teams square up for another critical World Cup meeting, caution might once again come to the fore and a high-scoring match looks unlikely unless somebody veers around the belief that adventure is the best policy. Safety first looks to be the more likely option to be exercised right now.